STAFF REVIEW of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013.
by Adam Dileva

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Box art There are very few things cooler than pirates. I don’t mean the cliché “Yar matey” with a parrot on their shoulder, an eye patch, and a wooden leg, but the brutal and ruthless swashbucklers that did as they pleased and didn’t care who they had to kill to get it. To be completely honest, I was totally expecting Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (referred to as Black Flag from here on) to have some of those stereotypes, but Ubisoft has done an amazing job at making sure that wasn’t the case. Instead, Black Flag is more of a historically accurate representation of the time period with a believable scenery, story, and characters that truly engrosses you in the experience, more so than even the other Assassin’s Creed games did.

With a gaming series that has a yearly offering, fatigue can easily set in if things aren’t changed enough for fans each year. It’s clear that Ubisoft understands this very well and has gone through great lengths to ensure that Black Flag feels new and fresh while also redeeming the qualities that Assassin’s Creed fans thirst for every year. Even with the new setting in Black Flag of the Caribbean during 1715, the golden age of piracy where sailors thrived for fortune and fame, that would have probably been enough on its own to justify the “IV” in the title, but Ubisoft didn’t stop there and have included a plethora of new mechanics and changes that are for the better of the series as a whole.

As like the other games in the series, Black Flag’s story is divided into two portions, with one being the historical portion that makes up the bulk of the game, and the present day sections that was previously headed by the Desmond character. If you’ve yet to play an Assassin’s Creed game, the essential idea is that with a specific device called the Animus, you could view and relive any of your ancestor’s memories. Things have changed since the ending of Assassin’s Creed III though, and because Desmond is not the focal character in the modern setting, Ubisoft has done an amazing job at justifying how the player is interacting with his lineage, but I’ll leave that for you to experience and figure out.

Abstergo Industries has branched and created a company called Abstergo Entertainment, seemingly a video game company (with shout outs to Ubisoft as well), and you are the newest hire in this modern setting. You actually play as yourself rather than a Desmond-like persona and are asked with exploring the past of a specific ancestor of Desmond, the assassin Edward Kenway. If you’ve played Assassin’s Creed III, you no doubt recognize the name Kenway; that’s because Edward is the father of Haytham Kenway (antagonist in Assassin’s Creed III), and thus also the grandfather to Ratonhnhaké:ton, better known as Connor, the assassin you play as from the same game, all of which are descendants to Desmond.

Pirates get their turn in the spotlight in Black Flag and Edward’s story takes place during the early 18th century around the Caribbean islands and seas. This is where pirate legacies were birthed and just like other Assassin’s Creed titles, you’ll have your run ins with historical figures such as Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and even the infamous Blackbeard. You’ll navigate the seas on your trusty ship but you’ll also pass through main cities such as Kingston, Nassau, and Havana. Edward, having fled England in search for riches and glory, eventually becomes the feared and respected pirate he knew he could be. Being both pirate and assassin, Edward has a very unique outlook on things and an even more polarizing personality. Ezio from the previous games used to be my favorite assassin of the series by far, but even after starring in only one game, I think Edward might have that honor. He’s got a very unique personality and is a great blend of Ezio and Connor’s personalities. While you can probably see his involvement in the Templar / Assassin conflict during the story, he’s still a polarizing character and I never grew tired of him like I did with Connor.

If you played Assassin’s Creed III I know what you’re thinking, and no, Black Flag does not start off that dull in the beginning and take three memory sequences to actually start getting interesting; quite the opposite. Within minutes of starting Black Flag you’re thrust into Edward’s story and even get to try your hand out at the new ships and mechanics quite early on. As a whole, Black Flag has a much richer and more impressive setting than Assassin’s Creed III did. I knew what they were trying for with the frontier in the previous game, but it was dull and a chore; subsequently, the world in Black Flag is very vast and you actually want to explore every island and find every hidden collectable. Cities in III were very boring to navigate, as most of the buildings and landscape was flat, so you didn’t really traverse all that much. Free running in Black Flag is vastly improved, not only because of the cities and areas with more traversing to execute, but the new forts and jungle areas suit an assassin’s parkour abilities perfectly.

You’ll visit Kingston, Havana, and Nassau, the game’s three main cities, along with dozens of other places to explore such as small islands, to enemy forts, and even dense jungles littered with dangerous animals. I didn’t think the jungle setting would fit with the gameplay we’ve come to know in the series, but I was pleasantly surprised, as you can play completely stealthy if you wish by hiding in dense foliage or hiding around cover. You can decide how you want to approach your target and playing completely stealthy is a viable option in many ways. It’s worth noting that transitioning from naval to land, or boat to boat is completely seamless and without loading. This greatly helps keep the level of immersion and you engrossed in the experience. Also improved are the tasks that are given to you when you are aiming for 100% synchronization in each of the memory sequences; there’s no more guesswork or trying to figure out why you didn’t get the maximum rating. You’re also able to given feedback and rate each mission after completion, so I hope people do this so we get less of the tedious eavesdropping missions that I’ve loathed since their inception.

It’s inevitable, but you will have to fight your way out of some situations regardless of how stealthy you attempt to be. While I understood the combat mechanics from the previous games, I know everyone did not properly, so this has been addressed in a number of ways. Firstly, combat as a whole feels a tad slower, and that’s a good thing, as you’re not simply mashing buttons and hoping to counter or disarm enemies, but instead can perform these actions when you want to with much more ease. Another big upgrade is the ability to freely aim your pistols and guns now and don’t have to rely on the auto aim any longer. This coincides with the ability to dual wield, and since Edward can carry up to four pistols, you can chain these together for some awesome gunshot attacks and combos. The iconic assassin hidden-blades return and without question are one of the favorite weapons, but Edward can also equip dual cutlass swords as well. Rope darts return, but blowpipes now make their appearance and I actually found myself using these different types of darts more often than I thought I would to approach stealth based areas differently than I would have in the past without them. You may even have to fend off some sharks and other predators in the ocean if you decide to explore the underwater caverns as well.

A notable feature that’s been changed is the notoriety system, and in my opinion, for the better. Previously if you caught the guard’s attention you would have to hide for them to stop hunting you but would also have to find wanted posters and rip them down, or bribe officials. This has been taken out, but there are still consequences for acting like a pirate in civilized areas. As there would be no possible way for the world to learn of your crimes in each city since you are able to sail across the sea to other cities and areas, a new system is in place that will have pirate hunters on the hunt for Edward should his crimes continue to escalate and grow. Eventually you’ll have Man-o-war battleships chasing you down on the seas if you don’t keep your pirate debauchery in check. With the inclusion of a fast travel system to places you’ve already been, this might not even be a huge issue for you if you don’t decide to sail the sea as often as you should (since it’s awesome).

The economic system in place in black Flag is much easier to understand and possibly makes more sense simply because you’re actually going out and gathering those resources (by pillaging other ships on the sea). If you liked having Connor’s upgradable house in III, you’ll be happy to know that something similar has returned in Black Flag, but on a larger scale. Once you unlock Edwards hideout a few hours in you can then upgrade the whole area by adding new sections and buildings like taverns and shops.

I’m not usually the kind that will try and get 100% in a game, especially a large open world like the Assassin Creed games, but there’s something Black Flag has done right that has me staying up for hours trying to get every collectable before moving on. As it’s the era of pirates, Black Flag wouldn’t be complete without treasure maps for you to comb the seas for in hopes of riches. As you find treasure maps, they will have general coordinates and simply have a drawing with a big red X placed where the booty is buried for the next person to find, much like a real treasure map would have. Once you find the appropriate spot and dig (the prompt does come up, so you won’t be digging endlessly for hours) it’s unburied and the spoils are yours.

You can also search for hidden animus fragments throughout the world, save sailors to recruit them to your fleet, and even chase down flying musical notes that will unlock new sea shanty songs for your crew to sing while at sea. It may sound silly, but it’s absolutely worth doing. On top of all that, hunting also makes a return from Assassin’s Creed III, but it much more streamlined and no need to set frustrating traps. As you hunt and kill animals in the jungle or harpoon sea creatures, you can then skin them and use their hides and bones for crafting new weapons, armor, and gear, or to even sell if you need more money for something else.

One of those things you’ll be sinking a lot of your heard earned (robbed) money into is your trusty ship Jackdaw. Arguably the best part of Assassin’s Creed III was the introduction of naval warfare, and with Black Flag every aspect has been dramatically improved, to the point that it can even be its own game if you want it to be. Being able to sail the open sea may not sound like a big deal if you did it in the previous game, but the world in Black Flag is much vaster and you actually feel as if you’re sailing with a purpose. You will get distracted and go sailing for hours on end like I did; think of it as the equivalent of simply getting cars in a Grand Theft Auto game and wasting time for hours. The world is massive and sailing is a large portion of the fun to be had, especially when you spot a cargo ship on the horizon with your spyglass.

Using your spyglass from afar will actually give you information about the boat you are looking at, such as its level (difficulty), type, and cargo. If you’re short on metal you can use your scope from afar and see if you need to go plunder that ship or not, saving you valuable time. To succeed on the open seas, you WILL have to upgrade the Jackdaw, and to do this you need resources which are obtained by stealing them from other ships by boarding them and taking it for your own. You’re even able to upgrade and change the appearance of the Jackdaw as well if you have the spare resources needed to do so. The open water is incredibly realistic (even for the Xbox 360 version) and waves and wind will actually affect how your ship sails. Sometimes you’ll even find yourself in terrible storms or a hurricane area and rogue waves if not handled properly, can massively damage your vessel. You may have to even avoid water spouts and other obstacles in the worst conditions on the sea.

Your ship won’t sail itself though, and this is where your crew comes in. You’ll need bodies to fire the weapons, set the sails, and help plunder any opposing ships you decide to board. Edward will have to manage his crew that can and will perish along your travels and also recruit new members as needed within cities. While it’s not a deep mechanic aside from having enough bodies needed to be successful, you do end up experiencing some form of comradery after being at sea for hours on end singing sea shanty’s one after another with your crew.

Ship battles are simply a way of life for a successful pirate, and Edward is no exception to the rule either. Cargo from ships holds the precious resources you’ll need and the ships will be added to your fleet if you don’t outright destroy them as well. Damage a boat to low enough health and you’ll be given the cue that you are able to board it. If you destroy the boat completely you only gain half the resources it was carrying, but the real fun comes when you swing or jump from your ship to the other to take it over. The more ships you plunder the more your wanted level will become on the seas, as hunter ships will be sent after you if you don’t take care of your notoriety on land before venturing back out to sea.

Simply put, naval battles are amazing. The combat mechanics are much deeper than they were in III and there are many more options, not even including all the ship upgrades you can optionally do as well. You’ll see many types of ships, from small frigates all the way up to the massive and devastating Man-o-war ships that will absolutely crush you if you aren’t prepared. There is even a system in place where you can send out the ships in your fleet out on missions, much like you did with your team of assassins in the previous games, but they will go on trade missions to bring you back resources or open up new missions and trade paths. I unfortunately didn’t get a whole lot of time with this part of the game, as the Ubisoft servers weren’t on until hours before submitting this review, but it was simple enough to understand and has its own economics system in place with a lot of inclusion with people on your friends list as well.

The unique multiplayer mode that was introduced a few games ago returns and also vastly improved, but yes, players still tend to simply run everywhere and on roofs constantly. There’s a massive amount of customization now available to you that not only range from your character, appearance, and abilities, but your profile, emblem, and many more items that will keep you playing to earn the credits needed. Prestige levels are in place for those that are truly dedicated and want to continue having reasons to play online with or against others as well. There is even a store in place now for people that don’t have the time to dedicate countless hours online and want to try out new characters, abilities, or appearance items, all of which can be earned with in-game currency, or bought with real money for their spate currency as well.

Wolfpack mode returns from the previous game which was a four player online cooperative experience, but the problem was that in III, it simply threw you into the mode without giving a lot of explanation of what, why, or how. This has been addressed with the new and improved Wolfpack mode in Black Flag with the inclusion of the new Discovery Mode. This mode allows you to play online with friends and others in a linear story-based offering that will really teach you the subtleties and purpose of the mode; essentially a tutorial that’s actually playable. After Discovery is completed you’ll be able to move into the full ‘Unleashed’ offering where the goal is to reach the highest sequence possible, much like ‘waves’ in other games. You do this by completing the objective given to your team which can be multiple kills, synchronized skills, defending chests, and more. If you have someone on the team that isn’t as good or like to be reckless and kill civilians, your team will suffer, as you lose time waiting for your targets to refresh and reappear.

There is even an inclusion of a mode titled Gamelab, which allows you to essentially customize a game or mode to your very specific liking. You can turn off the compass, HUD elements, rule sets, and even more and play them with your friends. Popular creations will even be playable by the community so let your imagination out and make some creative modes and rule sets and be known.

While I completely enjoyed my time with Black Flag, and will continue to do so as I still have a ton of collectables to search for, it does have a few minor issues that should be noted, though nothing game breaking or a deal breaker by any means. Unlocking items in multiplayer is going to take a very long time, and while you can fast track this by spending real currency for in-game money, it can become unbalanced when you’re paired up with a high level player or a similar level one but with them willing to spend money on those fast tracks, giving them a massive advantage in competitive modes. There were multiple times I ran into minor bugs such as clipping issues and there are times where it’s very difficult to tell what objects can or can’t be climbed, even though they look like they should be. While I truly love the new jungle setting in specific areas, it seems very silly when you’re incognito by hiding in the foliage, but your head is clearly popping out of the bushes, yet the enemies can’t see you. Like I said, nothing that’s a deal breaker, and the positives vastly outweigh the negatives.

While the game might seem small at first when you’re unleashed in the first city, it’s truly impressive at how big the world is as a whole once you have control of the Jackdaw and can start sailing from area to area (Which I suggest instead of relying on fast travel). In terms on size and setting, it’s astounding what Ubisoft has done to create this incredibly realistic world, even on current-gen systems like Xbox 360. This makes me truly excited to see how fantastic everything will look even more so on next-gen with Xbox One in a few short weeks. It’s nice to know that Black Flag on current-gen isn’t being vastly scaled down, and sure, it’s going to look much prettier on the new hardware, but if you aren’t planning on upgrading right away don’t let that deter you in any way from getting Black Flag as soon as possible.

Simply put, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is not only the best Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played to date, as it keeps the core of what the game is all about, but it’s also now the best pirate game I’ve ever played as well. This is a true Assassin’s Creed game, but should you desire, you can play it completely as a pirate and stay on the open seas if you wish. If you were turned off by Assassin’s Creed III and the lackluster Connor character, you don’t need to worry about that in Black Flag. Edward is a polarizing character in his own right, the ‘real world’ Abstergo element of the plot is done in a very intelligent method (complete with information on Desmond for those of us that were fans of his character and storyline), the core gameplay from the series is intact and improved, and the openness of the sea and being a pirate is worth the price of admission alone. Even if you’re not the biggest Assassin’s Creed fan, but an enthusiast of pirates or the era, Black Flag will also appeal to you and will keep you busy for an incredible amount of time with its openness and perfectly casted characters keeps the flow and pacing moving forward when you’re ready to take a break from plundering at sea. It’s impossible to review a pirate based game without at least one cliché, so if you don’t add Black Flag to your gaming collection, you may be forced to walk the plank.

Overall: 9.4 / 10
Gameplay: 9.8 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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